The Chinese were first to explore other continents

In 1405 a huge fleet under the eunuch admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) sailed all the way to Zanzibar (an island off the coast of Africa). The fleet consisted of over 300 vessels (some as large as 2000 tons and 250 feet long) and over 27,000 men. The goal was to extract tribute from the locals ([MORR], p. 407 and later). There were seven such Treasures Fleets, the last one in 1433. They visited Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mogadishu, and Mecca!

The Chinese government decided that such displays of power were not cost effective (the collected tribute was much less than the cost of the fleet) and soon after the last trip the government banned ship building and the records of Zheng’s voyages were destroyed in 1477.

Why did not the Chinese sail across the Pacific to reach the American continent? They had no motive and the Pacific is much wider than the Atlantic. The distance between Shanghai and San Francisco is almost twice the distance between Lisbon and New York. (No islands in the Pacific north of Hawaii at 28o latitude and south of the Aleutians at 51o latitude.)

European Exploration

Europeans started exploring the Atlantic in the 1400’s. Why? They were forced because their access to the riches of the east (India, China) was blocked by the Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire had become a big power by 1400 and only Tamerlane’s invasion delayed their capture of Constantinople.
They also knew that the earth was round and, in principle, they could reach the Far East by sailing west. Some highlights:

  • 1420 Portuguese start exploration of the Atlantic, discover Madeira Islands.
  • 1431 Discovery of the Azores Islands (they may have been found earlier).
  • 1453 Fall of Constantinople to Ottomans creating problems for the European spice trade. (There was a Genoese trading colony in Constantinople)
  • 1492 Columbus expedition
  • 1498 Vasco Da Gama (Portuguese) to India

In 1519 Herman Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire (Mexico) with an army of about 600 men. In 1532 Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire (Peru) with an army of fewer than 200 men. Horses and firearms were factor, but most decisive was the spread of epidemics from the Spaniards to the Incas [GGS]. (Unplanned biological warfare). The Spaniards also fought a lot with each other since the “Indians” were such an easy prey. I can think of another factor. The rulers of the Aztec and Inca empires weere cruel so their subjects may have been motivated to defend them against a foreign invader.

In 1510, the Portuguese admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque attacked the state of Goa (middle of the Indian west coast) and took possession from Ismail Adil Shah and his Ottoman allies (?). It is estimated that 6,000 of the 9,000 Muslim defenders of the city died, either in the battle in the streets or while trying to escape. The Portuguese stayed there until 1961.

Portuguese aftermath: Today Goa is India's richest state with a GDP per capita two and a half times that of the country as a whole. It was ranked the best placed state by the Eleventh Finance Commission for its infrastructure and ranked on top for the best quality of life in India by the National Commission on Population based on 12 Indicators.

In 1535, Portuguese traders obtained the rights to anchor ships in Macau's harbors and to carry out trading activities. Eventually, they built rudimentary stone houses and in 1557 the Portuguese established a permanent settlement in Macau, paying an annual rent of 500 taels (20 kilograms / 44 pounds) of silver. They continued to pay an annual tribute to China up to 1863 in order to stay in Macau. In 1986 Macau was made a special administrative region (SAR) of China (same status as Hong Kong).

[MORR] Ian Morris Why the West Rules - For Now, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010. Subtitled: The Patterns of History and what they Reveal about the Future.

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